You immediately diminish the remembered turbulence of the flights that delivered me back to the U.S., and finally to the West Coast. The leg from Bordeaux to Newark, for spending a few days with family and friends on the East Coast, was especially rough – wretched window seat in the second-to-last row as the plane pitched and passengers gasped and I allowed morbid thoughts of having made it all this way only to perish next to my elderly French seatmates over the Atlantic.
You and I originally reunited at baggage claim at SFO back in 2005. In 2013, you retrieve me at a different carousel but a number of the elements from our first airport meeting remain the same: it’s late, we’re both wrecks from lack of sleep and the slow toll of not having seen one another for five weeks, we stay up even later exchanging stories about there and here, we don’t sleep and then sleep the sleep of the happy dead.
I missed spring in San Francisco, and summer is pulling squarely into the station: baseball, stone fruit, cool rivers in hot Gold Country canyons, falling asleep with smoky hair from grills and camp fires, tomatoes, pink wine, and gathering the fog as we pass back into it after weekends in places with appropriately higher temperatures during this time of year, returning, over one of two bridges, to our strange, gorgeous city that simultaneously defies and burnishes the altar of seasons.
I am terrible with linearity. I reached a point during the great adventure where I had to be in it while I was there, and put off the telling until I had successfully negotiated the gauntlet of planes, trains, buses, trams, and cars to make and end the journey, to arrive safely home to continue the narrative. Castiglioncello, Firenze, Lecce, Otranto, Ostuni, Brindisi, London, Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion, Princeton, Harleysville, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope – every segment of the trip brought me incrementally closer to home, both the physical reality and the big, nebulous idea of it.
Traveling alone was a ball of clichés: challenging, invigorating, exhausting, empowering. Troubleshooting and crafting solutions was entirely up to me, and my reactions to situations were at once more and less compelling – because, ultimately, I was the only one who had to witness and sit with them. Even with technology to facilitate keeping in touch, often through face-to-face facsimile, I felt increasingly like I was living on a different planet, tethered to California’s slim edge of North America by a tenuous length of filament. I moved forward, rootless, exposed to my own, singular capacity for sparking momentum. I felt crazy; I felt strong. I felt tall; I felt miniscule. Duality was vivid, closer at hand than usual.
I brought only two carry-on bags but have managed to draw out unpacking for almost a week. I’m down to the last bits and bobs – a tangle of jewelry I never wore (instead: every day, the same pair of vintage, shell-iridescent hoops I bought in Austin two years ago), power cords, a manila envelope of my itineraries and a handful of paper mementoes. I loathe the sentimentality of stuff, prefer the dynamic tissue of sheer memory and off colors of photographs that imprecisely capture where I went, what I saw – porous remainders, keyholes to myriad interpretations of what I made happen and what happened to me. I have: five rolls of film to develop, thousands of digital images to edit, 29 stories + four thank-you notes to write, four miniature bottles of Pineau des Charentes and Italian olive oil to savor, one suspender clip to sew back on (an impulse buy at a Bordeaux hypermarché), 1/6 of a year’s sense to make.
On Friday night, Josh and I had dinner with our dear friend Ian at 7 Mile House (“7 Mile House Sports Bar & Grill, one of the oldest bars in the San Francisco Bay Area and the only “mile house” left standing in its original location, is celebrating 160 years of business since it opened its doors in 1853. The venue’s transformation from stagecoach stop, pony express route, brothel, biker and trucker hangout, and infamous sports gambling den to a lively sports bar and live music venue demonstrates 7 Mile House’s resilience through the decades.”). I had only been home for a couple days at that point, and was still beating a path back down to earth when we entered the weekend celebration of the roadhouse. We crammed around a tiny table in the back room and ordered platters of Filipino delicacies accompanied by lemon wedges and pyramids of white rice: diced pork cheeks and liver hot from the grill, into which we mixed a raw egg yolk; steak salpicao with thick slices of jalapeño (heat tamed by 21st Amendment’s Brew Free or Die IPA); and garlicky pork adobo. The ladies at a neighboring table grooved to the instrumental intro of the old school R&B band getting started at the front of the bar, before handing their server a rolled up bill to cover dessert and heading toward the dance floor. The history and our fellow diners provided a beautiful, critical reminder that San Francisco is so much more than 20-something hipsters and Tech 2.0 vampires. Later, back in the neighborhood, a sassy Irish bartendress whipped us up perfect nightcaps (Sazerac for me, Boulevardier for Josh, Negroni for Ian) at a new bar on 24th. Ian’s sense of humor is prone to the same nonsense and sick dips as mine and Josh’s, and it was great to break into familiar lunacy with those two. Home.
I keep coming back to Italy’s daily ritual of the evening walk – where every generation gathers, preens, mingles, embraces and is embraced. Also: how small, old towns proffer a much different animal of community than big, old cities – and, is this true, and, is this necessary? Pledging allegiance to an urban center as your adult home is tricky business, and I’m figuring out how to roll with the inevitable evolution of the city as I move toward a decade into my time here. San Francisco is an easy place over which to feel proprietary (“my” city). Striking a balance between making a fist around this place and holding the rudder lightly seems key to building and rebuilding home here, or really in any city. Spending time in Europe and even my brief stopover in the homes and bars of friends in Brooklyn reminded me how comparatively young California is, how I am closer to the accumulation of generational experience here.
I make you split your gum (licorice mint, a souvenir from the Pisa airport) with me on the way to the grocery story. Saturday splays open, above 80 degrees, I am back, and we are cooking for friends later that night. Our favorite things.
Our latest hysterical laugh blooms from hyperbolic recreation of a certain theme song, humming and scatting the piano waterfall and bass slaps.
While I was gone, you tell me, a hummingbird visited the honeysuckle plant you annually water and wrangle into thousands of sweet, sunshine blossoms.
When you leave the room: green soap, coffee.
Lucca to Lecce | 3 trains, 10 hours
amusement park (deceased)
artichokes in rows (low, happy)
Barilla factory (shaped like the pasta boxes on shelves, and far enough away from the track to appear the same size)
basiliche (round-shouldered blips on the horizon)
black birds (feather flame of white-tipped wings)
brush fires (casual)
Cerignola (birthday ingredient)
coastal surprise (clear, milk)
farmhouse ruins (stone, daily)
grain (green, knee-high, a greeting)
grandparents untwisting the cellophane of wrapped candy (voyage treat allowance)
olive trees (silver-green, train tunneling between the groves)
Ostuni (white mystery of the hilltop city inside of which I will walk later in the week)
pinks and reds (floral commas pausing field sentences)
quarries (secrets of the plain parts)
rain division (looking back toward sun, forward to storm)
rainbow (faint, followed by hail)
rolled hay (cigars for mustachioed men)
soil (wet scent rolling in through the vents, minerals shifting as the diminishing ridership heads south and south and south)
vineyards (waking up)
wind farms (resolute)
Final dinners in magical Lucca flat:
1. spaghettini with mushrooms, ricotta, and white pepper
2. fagioli scritti with celery and marjoram; stuffed artichokes (finocchiona, pecorino di Lucca, basil, garlic, bread crumbs, olive oil, pepper, salt)
3. romanesco “steaks” over roasted graffiti eggplant and red pepper purée
4. roasted romanesco, farm egg, wild arugula salad
Today, I am jealous of those just arriving, want to grab them by the lapels and tell them they too will cry bitterly when they have to leave.
Small joys of Lucca, partial list:
Expelling an intact disc of espresso grounds when cleaning the Bialetti’s funnel filter.
When I ask for cinque o sei fette at La Grotta, and the tall, sunned fellow with the sparkling eyes shows me perfect slices of finocchiona or salame toscano or prosciutto cotto laid out on the paper, raises them aloft toward me like he’s presenting a newborn.
The bespectacled trio who has everything you need behind and in front of the counters at Forno Alimentari G. Giurlani, the members of which appear to be in their 70s or older and no stock boy in sight: bald signore in his apron, brunette signora missing the top thirds of several fingers, blonde signora in her silk scarf and movie star glasses.
Bitter, red sodas in petite glass bottles. You can find Sanbitter - which essentially tastes like carbonated, nonalcoholic Campari in San Francisco - but here there are several kinds available, including Aperol’s own soda, and versions with an orange or bitter lemon component. I like how bracing they are, both in flavor and color. I’ve been mixing them over ice with gin (decidedly un-Italian, but the botanical edge matches well) and a slice of lemon.
Stocking up on drinking water at the public fountains - cold and sweet from taps over wide marble bowls wearing mineral shadows. Dads with metal carriers to house four, six bottles, and young soccer teams in their practice garb doing the same.
Flood of citrus perfume down Via Vallisneri. A fig tree leafing out from a high veranda and fanning over an especially narrow passage below Via Santa Croce.
Bats flapping - feverishly, cheerfully (it looks the same) - along the canal at night, coming into view in the street lanterns and then soaring back into the darkness.
The love graffiti - fewer tags and more “TI AMO ISABELLA.” I love you this big, a building’s worth, an uncontainable amount.
Atop the walls: how the week’s rain turned up the visual volume; shade provided by enormous trees with tiny candy confetti blossoms - white with pink and yellow centers, stacked in cones, candles among the branches; wide hope of the bulwarks, bowing out from the circular path, every one providing a green berth of safety.
Proper cups, saucers and spoons for coffee at every bar. No “to go” culture, and the symphony of clinks resulting from staying put.
All of the different hellos but especially the excessive goodbyes - a string of farewells at the end of both in-person interactions and phone calls, sì-sì-buonasera-grazie-ciao-ciao.
Learning how to pronounce words I had previously only referenced in print by listening in on conversations the next table over, of passers-by - hard l’s, soft c’s, z’s that sting, when phrases are strident and when they are gentle.
Imagining the nuns as real brassy broads, especially the one in her white habit and cream cardigan who I see toddling down Via Del Gallo - side to side on an interchanging, diagonal path, a slow efficiency.
One of Lucca’s heirloom beans: fagiolo scritto (fagioli scritti, pl.) beans “written on” (or “beans wrote of Lucca” as I saw in one funny translation). The long pods are magenta and crimson with white stripes (the inscriptions), and the beans themselves run the gamut from opal, to white with wine-colored streaks, to bright purple with white dashes. Once cooked, they look like larger pinto beans with darker brick markings, but you retain the memory of their technicolor raw state while eating them.
The low-key attitude around safety, kids standing on the backs or sitting on the handlebars of their parents’ bicycles as an acceptable form of transportation. No helmets on anyone, a medium pace. Implied proclamation: relax, we’re all going to get there in one piece.
How everyone is visible, out and about, no generation favored or given more air time or attributed more worth than another.
How la passeggiata gathers steam throughout the week, a party by Sunday, locals and visitors alike married to revelry in the weekend’s waning hours.
Apprehending that anything is possible in my own language, what a liberty it is to be able to state and inquire.
Two days ago, they erected scaffolding around the single column on Piazza Santa Maria, shrouded it in white cloth. It’s time to go.
More soon: Castiglioncello, Firenze. Tomorrow, I travel 10 hours south, by train, to Lecce, deep in the heel of the boot.
My love flew back to California a week ago, marking the next phase of my sabbatical, the part on my own. It was brutal seeing him off at the train station. He found a track-side seat, unlatched and leaned out of the window to extend our goodbye. I ran off the platform shortly after, ripping the bandage, then back, rapping on the window, to retrieve the forgotten postcards he had asked me to mail. I waited in line at the post office, also the bank, and had a confusing exchange with one of the tellers, who gave me the impression that sending three pieces of mail to the U.S. was impossible at worst and wishful thinking at best. He peered over his glasses as me, turned to peck incredulously at his keyboard, held out his right hand, palm spread, and his left thumb - six euro. I handed over exact change.
I knew the day of Josh’s departure was important for setting the tone of my solo mission, for re-inhabiting the trip on different but equally positive terms. I kept moving, took a long walk outside the walls, went grocery shopping, and stayed up late cooking dinner. It is strange business for me to just worry about and take care of myself, but there’s nothing else to do here but that. In my anonymous bubble in liminal Lucca, I’m relatively free of compounded emotions, those routinely soaked up from others around me and layered underneath or on top of my own. The only emotional states to absorb, reflect upon, and tend to are mine alone. Put on a sweater, eat a snack, call someone or read something - it’s not that hard, and an obvious lesson. What Josh has repeated, sometimes pleadingly, to me for years: Take care of others by taking care of yourself.
Josh is not someone you could ever imagine in advance of meeting. No part of him leans toward type, and every part of him spans, splits, and obliterates category. His hair and beard contain every color naturally available - brown, red, black, blonde, gray, white. He is kind, brave, smart, handsome, resourceful, and impish. He is extraordinarily sane and affable, a person who is also a litmus test - if you don’t like him, you might be dead on the inside. He has about nine distinct laughs. If you have kids or are interested in raising kids who are independent, infinitely capable, and steeped in positive outlook, see if Ginny and Al will overnight you a blueprint of the nurturing and let-live activities in which they engaged while raising Josh.
We have an inexplicable aphid problem in our concrete back yard, but Josh’s efforts to grow tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, and herbs every summer will not be thwarted. One year, he attempted integrated pest management by unleashing an army of ladybugs on the besieged plants. Another, he built a tabletop greenhouse to protect his seedlings. Every spring, he gathers fresh resolve, considers new solutions.
Thanks to Josh, our lives have an epic soundtrack. When I tell him to put on the love records, he knows this means George Harrison or the Beach Boys or ELO or Sam Cooke or some esoteric 45 recently retrieved from Grooves, and the exact songs on which to drop the needle.
I am Josh’s opposite - a nervous, lazy pessimist - and our temperamental differences make me feel even luckier to be number one of his three great loves, the other two being art and baseball. While I think it takes more time to travel places than it actually does, Josh generally budgets less time than required - and the reality lies somewhere in the middle. I think we’re all going to die; Josh believes we’re all going to live and prosper! He waters the plants and I write the thank-you notes. I remember the small details and he looks toward the horizon. We prefer to be together, but have varied interests and are plenty comfortable spending time apart in doses as well. I also miss him even when we’re in the same room, and tell him so. I am nostalgic about our story as it’s unfolding; he replies, “But I’m right here!” We’re a good balancing act.
As a teenager, and into my adult life, I always gambled big on love. Moved places, stayed places, risked limb and sanity in bear and rattlesnake country and the company of disturbing family politics. Those stories were always most important to me, even if and when they ended in ruin. I boarded a plane at Logan with two bags, relocated across the country to take a chance on the ginger artist from Minnesota. We had only known each other 12 hours in person, and several weeks through hours-long phone calls and snail mail correspondence. I had to wait a couple more weeks after that until he arrived back in San Francisco from a post-grad school trip to Italy. We reunited, for good, at baggage claim on July 1, 2005.
So now we’re apart in reverse - him in California, me in Tuscany - but he is with me in flowers. The day before my birthday, he brought home a bouquet - orange ranunculus, white lilies, red hypericum, and glossy, tropical leaves in tri-fold origami - from a florist who asked Josh to say hello to his friend Larry in San Francisco, a bartender at the Buena Vista. I picture Larry building Irish coffees in the signature glasses that made the news last year for their endangered supply stream as his Italian buddy pulls together stems and blossoms a continent away. In their paper cone, the four lilies were all closed, but then opened, one by one, after Josh left. It’s a corny attribution, but, hell, I live for that shit.
I was raised by a horticulturalist and a musician - it was my inherited imperative to seek, with unswerving conviction, a verdant, operatic, brightly rendered love story for myself. My parents, high school sweethearts, divorced a few years shy of their 40th anniversary, and while their separation shattered our existing family paradigm, I am grateful to them for their rich model of love both as partners and as parents while raising me and my two sisters. They had a good run, and I hope they allow themselves that as our family heals toward our new reality. Because of them, I have priorities that at once make me a strong partner and allow me to receive a strong partner in Josh. I love, protect, feed, and celebrate my people fiercely - and can identify and privilege those ways of operating in the world by how clearly, generously, Josh reflects them back to me.
Taking care | solo cooking in Lucca
1. radicchio-red wine risotto
2. pea crostini with garlic, lemon, and pecorino al tartufo
3. prosciutto-pea frittata; arugula and strawberry salad; Aperol soda with gin and lemon
4. open-faced prosciutto cotto panino; Birrificio Brùton Bianca
5. zuppa di ricotta
6. bread pudding with carciofi, cime di rape, and mozzarella; prosecco
Last night, I worked from a recipe written in Italian, and part of the English translation through an online tool I used read, delightfully, “Just obtain the gilding of the ingredients…” Removing the step from its original language revealed the Maillard reaction as wielding a sable brush.
Drinking a cappuccino at the bar, cafe with the maroon awning over the modest outdoor patio, a regular with a stack of papers in one arm calls out a greeting to the owners, an older couple, and slaps down a few euro. Having seen him coming, the woman is already pouring him a glass of prosecco. The cold, straw-colored wine, effervesces and immediately beads its vessel with condensation. I turn away, then back; the wine and the man are gone. The proprietress doesn’t flinch, busses his glass. It is just past 9:00 in the morning, Saturday. There is nothing derelict about this transaction, just a yellow component of routine like anything else.
The 13th century mosaic on the façade of the Basilica di San Frediano glints differently - now pixels, now sheen, now points, now gloss - as the day’s light inches across the leafing.
The buildings curved around the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro throw and catch the sun - butter, forsythia, ochre, roast.
Electric lichen in the valleys between terra cotta roof tiles.
Lucca apartment fabric: bedroom blanket spectrum, pollen fading to cornmeal; curtain stripes, alternating with cobalt.
Linens pinned to balcony lines and window light above the canal during a late-night walk around the block.
Custard in the bomboloni from Forno a Vapore Amedeo Giusti, and the local pasta dough - rich with yolk, a historical sign of wealth.
Before I left San Francisco, Vicki Valentine reminded me to enjoy the ambient music of conversation I could not understand - and it is a welcome respite to have only one facet of a sense turned on, hearing but not comprehending. Moving between and through a language I do not speak: pockets of turbulence on a long-haul flight, a cloud of bees, time-lapse fog.
I have been doing the verbal math between Italian and French (Romance languages: variations on a theme), preparing for the latter part of my trip. As I walked off the walls a few nights ago, I feared I had been concentrating so intently on this that I had actually been moving my lips, dusting off words (college Français), or even muttering aloud. A bald man reading the paper furrowed his brow at me.
On the train back from Castiglioncello, I ended up in a car packed with teenage boys (hollow bravado, ear-piercing outbursts, one tall girl in their midst who had been provisionally accepted as “one of the guys”) returning from a gray day at the beach. Paused in the port town of Livorno, six of them crammed into the exit passage between cars, leaned out of the open doors, and sang what sounded like a fighting anthem. Imagined context of this linguistic weather system: ages-old high school sports rivalry between Pisa and Livorno.
On Tuesday, I drank a beer and watched the sun set on Piazza San Michele. The milling crowd thinned as the sky gathered hue, the colorless tyranny of afternoon glare following morning rain turning over to reveal clear, grey-blue patches streaked with cirrostratus. An exhausted Polish couple sat one table over, drinking espresso and monitoring their two toddlers’ sprints back and forth from the table to the piazza’s reigning statue. The dad removed the pits from two apricots, handed them to the boys. Another day, the stone fruit’s glow would have matched a dissipating stripe overhead, but Tuesday had a quiet finish. The boys found an Italian playmate, their volleyed yelps of joy and sugar translating without translation.
Yesterday, at the produce market, I looked for strigoli for zuppa di ricotta. I consulted with one of the women who run the scales, pointing at the word on my list. They did not have it today. I could not sort out how to ask about the season, if spring was the wrong time entirely to seek the mystery green. Spinaci would be an acceptable substitute. Tastes similar? I gestured. “Yes… but no.” Close, but not intimate. Strigoli is strigoli - a culinary and linguistic particular. She thoughtfully loaded my bag - cipolle and carciofi on the bottom, pomodori in the middle, fragole and rucole on top - weighing, layering, naming aloud.
I went to the Cinque Terre, and all I got was food poisoning.
We waited eight years to come to the five dizzying, brightly colored fishing villages carved into cliffs along the Ligurian coast. Josh had been there when we were first writing to each other, making a bigger plan than even we had known at the time.
We arrived two days before Festa della Liberazione. During the less congested days before the holiday, I contracted and battled a food-borne bug. Our first night, at a trattoria tucked away on winding streets high above the waterfront, we fell prey to waiter marketing to order an onslaught of small, oval plates of seafood to start our meal - they just kept arriving, crudo, salads, and marinated and fried items.
Josh is admirably willing to challenge his distastes in an ongoing way when it comes to food. He believes in palate evolution, and will try things again and again to either confirm he does not like them or welcome a newfound appreciation of them. Years ago, I watched his relationship to mussels shift - now, he regularly eats them at Plouf, sopping up the Pernod-spiked broth with string fries. I love this open window.
He grew up with land-locked lake catch, and most shellfish are still tough for him, so the parade of finned and tentacled creatures hauled up from the Mediterranean tested his limits. He cried uncle on the fried sardines; I wish I had as well. A dark 36 hours ensued.
On the overcast holiday, I tried to rally, sad to be missing vistas from rustic hiking trails hugging a remote coastline I would likely never visit again. We boarded the ferry to Monterosso, the northern-most town. Officially, all of the lower trails were closed for maintenance; unofficially, the route from Monterosso to Vernazza had quietly opened back up and was thronged with people. An hour in, cutlery clinked against ceramic through the thick greenery - proper lunch in session on an alternative plane as out-of-towners slogged along the path below, half improperly shod, half carrying tiny dogs. I looked up, toward the sounds of local civilization, pictured us wrangling vegetation and stumbling from the sharp incline onto the terrace of the unsuspecting folks enjoying their midday meal, inviting ourselves into their authentic ranks. Having forced down soda water and a few crackers to build a modicum of energy for the hike, I dared not even visualize food at that moment, but simultaneously would have consumed whatever they were serving to enter a different story. There were ancient women tending heirloom gardens dug into pitched slopes over the sea if you could drown out the French and Dutch and Long Islandese, the camera clicks and single-file groans of people plodding the trail directly behind and ahead of us. There were stooped men tarping over their fishing skiffs. There were younger men examining and trimming Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino vines. There was a different narrative around us, just not one I could access.
I grew up in two different seaside spots with bloated summer populations on the East Coast, and know what it’s like to loathe the people who seasonally take over your town. I felt rage-by-proxy in the face of the other tourists blanketing the Italian hamlets, which were once only accessible by boat. I had imagined the five lands for years, pre-designated them as the apex of our trip. I was born on one coast, and adopted the one across the country as my adult home. Saltwater edges consistently break or repair my heart, and I can never anticipate the direction.
I missed our inland routine. Of course - isn’t that how it always goes - the anticipated highlight is actually the lowlight, and the actual highlight is the everyday - ?
We bolted early. Back at our rental in Manarola, we packed up, invigorated by a snap decision to cut our losses, and braved the clogged train station to head home to our beloved Lucca - comparatively free of crowds, tchotchkes, and the melancholy of an astounding place once hidden and now trampled.
My favorite mystery couple - she with the enormous, curly coif, sad clown’s make-up, and he with the white beard and long hair, round, black-rimmed glasses, and occasional fedora - turns out to be American; I heard them bickering about bread choices at the Carlo del Prete Esselunga. She says, “No, you’re not listening, you’re hoarding food!” She has a Midwestern or deep upstate New York accent. Do they live here? On vacation? Residency? I have seen them at least five times now around town, and while I recognize them immediately, I’m certain they couldn’t pick me out of a crowd. If you don’t know me, I have few distinguishing physical characteristics. Tomboyish, shy white woman of average build, not quite brunette, not quite blonde.
In Lucca, it was just me and Josh, and now just me. No social obligations, no acquaintances on the street. I think of to whom I would go if I needed urgent advice, help - the old man at the grocery? The stately blonde woman who appears to run the show at the tabaccheria on Piazza San Michele? The two ladies in blue-trimmed aprons where I buy milk and eggs? The young guy who rings up my produce at Ortofrutta? Who would know me by sight by now, three weeks into my stay? I am unrecognizable, invisible, here. Anonymity is liability, but also luxury when building hours outside of my normal, daily routine. As an introvert, I’m used to reconfiguring and organizing armor to negotiate work and personal functions that privilege outspokenness and self-promotion. It’s ok to push comfort boundaries, but I am also refreshed by the lack of need to suit up in my usual chainmail that an anonymous, solo travel experience affords.
I am a blurred, visiting stranger in a place of firmly planted specifics. I thought I knew some of the regional produce, but it turns out puntarelle is more of a Roman thing and I just missed the short season of gobbo di Lucca - a hunchbacked, ivory cardoon! Farmers finish cultivating them by bending and burying their stems underground to rob them of additional pigment. Earlier in the week, I bought thimble-sized fragoline di bosco (wild, or woodland, strawberries) that tasted less like the fruit I know and more like cologne (strawberry, chlorophyll, sandalwood). I ate most of them raw, then crushed the last palmful into slurry with the end of a wooden spoon. Added pinot bianco to the glass, stirred, let rest. Strained the blushed wine over ice, added soda water. Consumed while shelling peas for crostini (cooked with olive oil, shallot, garlic, lemon, salt, and pepper, puréed, topped with black truffle-studded pecorino). Anonymous, solo choice, always: SNACK DINNER.
Breakfast from Via San Nicolao:
melon from the Saturday market
buccellato di Lucca (local sweet bread with sultanas and aniseed)
French (or, in this case, Italian) toast with strawberry-pink peppercorn-grappa syrup
4 snacks from Via San Nicolao
7 dinners + 1 lunch from Via San Nicolao:
1. roasted chicken thighs over fennel + purple torpedo onions; asparagus
2. frisée salad with leftover chicken, fennel, onions, asparagus + balsamic vinaigrette; pane toscano as crust for roasted Roma tomatoes, young garlic + semisoft cow’s milk cheese
3. pork loin stuffed with prosciutto, olives, parsley, rosemary, lemon zest + bread crumbs over escarole salad with olive-blood orange vinaigrette; rosemary potatoes
4. fresh gnocchi, fresh sausage, porcini, cipollini, zucchini
5. asparagus-lemon risotto with local pecorino; valeriana with citrus vinaigrette
6. panini with Forno Casali’s corn focaccia, mozzarella di bufala, valeriana, garlic, shallot, olives, lemon + olive oil
7. puntarelle in soup + salad
8. cut-to-order (by Francesco around the corner) steak with brandy-pepper-cream sauce; steamed purple artichokes; mashed potatoes
Vino spumante with melon and lemon while Josh prepares puntarelle for salad (I did it last time, with the endless slicing and the ice bath, so we’re even). Salute!
At our intended stop, the train doors stick when we try to open them, and we unwillingly stay on board until Pescia. A unicorn of a taxi takes us up, up, up to Montecarlo, a hilltop micro town founded in 1333 and now eponymous of a well-known wine region that also includes the neighboring communes of Altopascio, Caponnori, and Pocari. The terrace views and fortress walls hold a mid-morning hush, the day’s top heat at bay. We have a long chat with Matteo at the visitor’s center, newly opened in an old schoolhouse. He pours us tastes of a couple local wines as we consult maps, talk about the spring lull before tourist season flays open in Tuscany. A stone hatch under glass in the center of the lobby floor commemorates a wheat cellar from centuries back. We have just missed a destructive rainy season while the opposite threatens crops in California.
The town is a promontory from which to inspect the fields and vineyards below - and then only shutters, laundry, and sky between the narrow, sloped streets of the interior. Josh ventures into the post office to mail two postcards, gets stuck behind an innkeeper with a heap of paperwork. Outside, across the way, the innkeeper’s daughter, about three years old, drinks a glass of juice on her stoop. On the same side of the street as the post office lies the family’s patio with potted plants, one serving as organic hook for several lengths of red string. Finishing her refreshment, the girl gathers the string - her string - and constructs an elaborate leash between a small, flowering tree and the iron railing dividing the patio from the wide stairwell where I’m standing. It is good, honest play; the spare materials make perfect sense here. She mutters to herself. Someone calls her (“Charli!”) inside.
We walk down the hill to a deserted agriturismo and receive a perfunctory tour of a filthy (and not in a sexy, old-timey way, just in a coiled-hoses-and-mop-buckets-and-new-world-mold way) farmhouse holding the aging barrels and a three-wine tasting under an awning off the closed restaurant’s dining room, amid the off-season property repairs. The first wine’s 50/50 Vermentino/Viognier ratio is soft and floral; we buy a bottle and get the hell out of there.
Back in town, back near Charli’s string sculpture, we walk by an open door into a small restaurant a few steps below street level. Donatella, the chef, stands near the kitchen; Sergio, her husband, sits dejectedly at the nearest table. They light up when we peek inside, and we instantly know this is our spot for the afternoon.
We choose from a verbal menu, described by Sergio.
A 1/2 liter of Montecarlo rosso and little extras, gifts from the chef: olives, bright bruschetta shot through with slivers of red onion.
Homemade pasta (every morning, from Sergio’s grandmother’s recipes; later, we applaud mastery of this art, so elusive to us, and Sergio replies, “When you watch your grandmother and mother make, it’s not so hard.”) - painstakingly crimped tortelli Lucchese, stuffed with seasoned meat and served with ragù, and noodles (the name of which I can’t recall - about 2/3 as wide as tagliatelle, and a few millimeters thicker) tangled with earth (fresh porcini and lots of black pepper). Sergio sets down cheese and tells us it is only for the tortelli. I adore this kind but firm direction.
For dessert, we ask Sergio to pick his favorite for us: panna cotta with “fruits of the forest” (blackberries, raspberries, and red currants in a warm, tart, liqueur-tinged sauce).
Espresso. Sergio’s grappa.
We love all of it, and them. The plastic flowers, damp smell, and Italian pop radio blaring in the corner of the grotto dining room fall away - they care about the food, about taking care of people through their food. This is what matters; the rest, suddenly, does not.
Again, we learn a lot in little time. Sergio and Donatella opened their place two years ago. It’s been tough, with a limited audience and small-town everyone in everyone else’s business. Making a living in Italy is very difficult right now; lots of friends and family have moved out of the country to try elsewhere. They want bigger for their son - seven in May - a more expansive view of the world, less chatter. They have their eyes on São Paulo, will visit in September to suss out the possibility of opening a restaurant there. Donatella plays us some Brazilian music that she applies to low spirits, to keep herself looking forward. Before cooking, Donatella did restoration work in churches and historic buildings but didn’t like the dark, quiet spaces and lack of interaction with people. She’s sweet on Josh (can’t blame her). She says, forget Viareggio and go to the white sand beach in Vada instead.
We promise to write and post a rave review. They laugh when we tell them we’re planning on walking the 2+ kilometers to the Montecarlo-San Salvatore train station. Too far! So few trains! Neither of these things are true, but we listen politely as they discuss alternatives. And then Sergio shoots up the stairs and out into the street: “I take you!” We protest; he’s having none of it. Into the car and down, down, down to the Pocari station, two stops from Lucca. Grazie, ciao, dear Sergio.
Another favor: the 15:12 is late and we won’t have to wait an hour for the next one. We hastily board the train without validating our tickets - a huge no-no in Italian public transportation culture, and liable to result in a equally huge fine by a conductor unimpressed by Americans pleading forgetfulness. Final grace: no one trolls our car, we arrive back in Lucca unscathed. But marked.